July 6th, 2016

Rhodes eager to race at 'new' Kentucky home

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Roy Walter

Assistant Editor


Rhodes eager to race at 'new' Kentucky home
Ben Rhodes hopes to notch his first Truck Series win at the newly renovated Kentucky Speedway Thursday night / photo from Ben Rhodes’ Twitter feed / cover photo from ThorSport Racing’s Facebook page via nascar.com

It won’t be the same Kentucky Speedway Ben Rhodes has known and loves when he heads to the 1½-mile track in Sparta for Thursday night’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race.

The Buckle Up Your Truck 225 will be the first race since Kentucky Speedway was renovated recently with its first full repaving since it opened in 2000. And the banking in turns one and two was increased to 17 degrees, narrowing the racing groove in the process. Turns three and four remain at 14 degrees.

The track had been known for its bumps in the rough surface, but now it won’t.

“It’s really smooth and it’s really fast,” Rhodes said. “It’s got one small bump coming out of turn two, but it doesn’t upset the race car.

“As a driver, the smooth surface will be really nice, not having your liver jarred loose or your eyes about to pop out of your head (laughs) when you’re driving around the track for a change.”

During the construction, a new drainage system and 3,200 more feet of the SAFER system were added. Both are intended to improve safety.

Rhodes believes the biggest challenge for him and his team at ThorSport Racing won’t be the new asphalt but rather figuring out how to set up his No. 41 Alpha Energy Solutions Toyota Tundra for the increased banking.

But the 2015 graduate of Holy Cross High School added, “We’re taking a really good truck there, so I feel good about it.”

Unfortunately, Rhodes won’t be able to race the truck he originally planned to take to Kentucky. That one was destroyed in last month’s fire that severely damaged his race shop at ThorSport’s headquarters in Sandusky, Ohio.

Even though the 19-year-old Louisvillian has raced a couple of times since the blaze, his team had the time and manpower to get a replacement truck ready to go for Kentucky – and he’s ready to go too.

“We have a truck that is built just like it,” he said. “It has a body that’s just like it, and that’s why I’m so confident about going there. Even though the primary was destroyed, this truck was going to be our second choice. It’s a really good truck. We’ve raced it once before this year (at Dover) and all the guys feel confident about it, and I feel confident as well.”

His team was even able to build a backup truck for Thursday’s race.

“We should always have at least two trucks ready at all times, just in case something happens in practice,” Rhodes added.

The Buckle Up Your Truck 225 will be the 10th of 23 races on this year’s Truck Series schedule, and Rhodes has said all along that the 1½-mile tracks have been his weakness. He believes that is because he and crew chief Kevin Bellicourt have less experience on them than they do at smaller venues – and less than most of the other drivers in the series.

“We’re still learning what we can do to be fast, but we found a lot of stuff in the recent races at the mile-and-a-halfs and we’ll apply it all at Kentucky Speedway,” Rhodes said. “And we have a brand new body on this truck, which is really, really big for speed at mile-and-a-half tracks.”

Rhodes has one top-10 finish on a 1½-mile track this year, a sixth place at Atlanta in late February. Since then he has ended up 18th at Kansas, 17th at Charlotte and 11th at Texas.

As the results would indicate, he believes he’s gradually improving on the mile-and-a-halfs.

“The Texas and Charlotte races, we kind of just made do there,” he said. “We finished the races and were just trying to get a good solid points day because we were fixing all of our really fast trucks.

“We’ve got all of our good trucks fixed now. We’re taking a really fast truck from earlier this year to Kentucky Speedway. It’s just a combination of getting our racing stable built back up and finding more speed in these trucks as we’re rebuilding them.”

Rhodes is on an upward roll after having put together progressively higher finishes the past three races. He was in contention at all three.

At Texas, he appeared headed for at least a top-five finish when he charged up through the field to eighth place with 35 laps to go, but a handling problem with his truck caused him to slip back to 11th at the end.  In his first race after the fire, he placed fourth at Iowa (a 0.88-mile track) and then second at Gateway Motorsports Park (1¼ miles) in his last race.

As a result, Rhodes has made up ground in the drivers’ point standings and the race to make the eight-driver Chase for the Championship at season’s end.

Before the Texas race, he was 16th in points. Now he’s 10th among the 69 drivers who have made at least one start.

And he’s hoping for even better things at the place he considers his home track. He has two previous races on the main track at Kentucky Speedway: an ARCA race in 2014 (he finished 27th) and an Xfinity race in 2015 (30th).

Rhodes is excited that Kentucky Speedway is only an hour so down I-71 from his Louisville home.

“I can’t sleep in my own bed and then get up and go race anywhere else,” he said. “This feels like home to me. I have a bunch of memories there. While it is only my third time on the big track, I’ve been there many, many, many, many times on the Legend Cars and Bandolero track, the small quarter-mile track in the infield.”

So what would it mean to Rhodes if his first Truck Series win were to come at his home track?

“I don’t know if there are words to describe it,” he said. “It would be way more special to get it at Kentucky Speedway than anywhere else, especially since we’ve been so close this year. If we finally got that win it would just be overwhelming.

“It would be a huge sigh of relief to know that we would finally get our victory. But at the same time, Kentucky Speedway better be ready because we’re going to have a whole lot of people there ready to party.”

 

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